A maritime household...The family behind Cates Tugs

By BCShippingNews
April 6 2017
Charles H. Cates, circa 1920. (City of Vancouver archives reference number AM54-S4-: Port P741.)
By Lea Edgar, Vancouver Maritime Museum

The Cates family name is very well known in Vancouver. It is due largely to one enterprising brother that the famous Cates towing company came into being. Almost every member of the Cates family was involved in the local maritime industries, but it was Charles H. Cates that started with one tug and a large helping of moxie.

The seafaring Cates family had their beginnings in the state of Maine. They then moved to Nova Scotia and eventually migrated their way west to British Columbia. The first Cates to arrive in B.C. was the head of the family, Andrew Jackson Cates, at the age of 56. Two of his sons, Charles Henry and John Andrew, followed around 1885. Sadly, Andrew died suddenly of a stroke in 1904 at the age of 75. At this point, five of his sons were working hard in the B.C. maritime industry. But it was Charles who arguably left one of the strongest and longest-lasting impressions on the community.

Photo above: Charles H. Cates, circa 1920. (City of Vancouver archives reference number AM54-S4-: Port P741.)

Charles Henry Cates was the eldest of the ocean-going sons of A.J. Cates. He went to sea at the age of 13. The tale of his start as a sailor is well-known family lore. The story goes that his schoolmaster threatened young Charles with violence, but his trusty Newfoundland dog, who always accompanied him to school, attacked the teacher in his defence. In the resulting tumult, the stove was knocked over and the school burned to the ground. Rather than return home and face the legendary wrath of his father, Charles ran away and joined the ship W.H. Weatherspoon under Captain Jim Pettis. While at sea he trained to be a cook and then later served as a sailor on several larger ships.

Charles decided to follow his father and come west in 1879. He worked his way across the country in stages, taking various jobs along the way. He finally reached B.C. in 1885 and took a job with the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). He travelled to various communities on the coast before settling in Victoria. After becoming bored with the scene in Victoria, he moved to the up-and-coming “Granville” on March 8, 1886. The City of Vancouver happened to be incorporated just one month later. Once settled, he got a job working at Hastings Mill. His brother John joined him in Vancouver in the summer of 1886. By 1888, Charles and John helped move their parents and three younger siblings to Vancouver. Charles then worked again for the CPR for several years building sheds and wharves. He also coaled their Empress and other trans-Pacific ships. Back in Victoria now, he became Captain of Spratt’s Ark in 1890, although he did not own the self-propelled scow. The vessel carried cargoes and eventually became a wrecker.

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